Sir Keir Starmer acknowledged that some cherished Labour policies would have to be shelved if he entered Downing Street in order to focus on dealing with the battered economy he would inherit.
The Labour leader, who sought to woo business leaders with a promise of a “new partnership”, offered a “pragmatic” approach to economic migration and a commitment to boosting productivity across the country.
But he said the economic chaos under the Tories meant that if he won the next election some “good Labour things” he would like to do would have to be shelved in order to focus on restoring the nation’s economic credibility.
Sir Keir told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference that firms had to wean themselves off reliance on low paid, cheap labour from overseas.
But he acknowledged the need to allow them to recruit the staff they needed now, while ensuring that in the longer term Britons had the skills needed to fill vacancies in the economy.
“Of course we will be pragmatic. Of course we understand that we need to act now so that we help business and drive growth.
“But we have to address and run towards the challenge that is skills, run towards the challenge that is ensuring we have everybody back in the workforce, because there are hundreds of thousands of people who aren’t working now who were working just a few years ago.
“This is, for me, an economic argument, not a push for political tactics.”
He said trade unions “must be a crucial part of our partnership”.
“Our common goal must be to help the British economy off its immigration dependency.”
But he would not commit to “arbitrary” numbers on bringing down immigration.
He later repeatedly dodged questions on whether he wanted net migration to fall overall, telling the BBC that under his approach levels would come down “in areas where we’re over-reliant on immigration” – but added: “I don’t want to hold back the skills that we need in this country.”
In his CBI speech, Sir Keir stressed the way Labour had changed since he took over from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, saying he had turned the party “inside out”.
“This is a different Labour Party and there is no going back, we are ready for partnership.”
He said Labour would “give Britain the clear economic leadership it needs” and told business chiefs the party would “work with you to drive our country forward”.
“Not just a pro-business party, but a party that is proud of being pro-business, that respects the contribution profit makes to our jobs, growth and our tax base,” he said.
“(A party) that gets that working people want success as well as support, understands that backing private enterprise is the only way that Britain pays its way in the world.
“This is a matter of conviction for me and I have united my party behind it.”
He said he would put economic stability ahead of implementing some of Labour’s plans for government – although he would not set out which policies would be postponed.
“We will inherit an economy that’s been damaged by the last 12 weeks and the last 12 years, and we need to fundamentally accept that as an incoming government,” he said.
“Restoring stability is key. There’s a cost to instability and we have been paying that cost over the last few weeks and over the last few years.”
That would mean restoring faith in the economic institutions and following clear fiscal rules.
“That stability has to be our first priority. If that means there are things – good Labour things – which we can’t do as quickly as we would like, then that is a consequence of that security.”
He said the Tory idea of “trickle down” economics had been “tested to destruction”.
But he also rejected a system that relied on growth in London and the south east, with the state redistributing that wealth around the country – an apparent criticism of the New Labour era.
“My Labour government will care – must care – as much about raising productivity everywhere as we’ve done in the past about redistribution.
“We’re going to throw everything at growing our collective contribution, our productive capacity in every community.”
On Brexit, Sir Keir said the current trade deal with the European Union is “not working well” but vowed not to take the UK back into the single market.
The Labour leader told the CBI conference: “We are not going back to the EU. That means not going back into the single market or customs union.
“But we have to make Brexit work, the deal the Government has got us is not working well. It’s holding business back, it’s holding growth back.”
A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Keir Starmer talks tough on immigration, but all his ‘policy’ amounts to is giving big business all the cheap, low-skilled foreign labour it asks for. Labour wouldn’t lift a finger to support our domestic workforce to fill vacancies.
“He is a dyed-in-the-wool open borders advocate who wants to give illegal migrants priority access to work permits and whose shadow home secretary won’t even say if she wants to see numbers fall.”